Monday, December 9, 2013

The City Half as Old as the World

Combatants in the Hirilákte Arena; Richard Launius (1987)

Two weeks ago, I indicated that introductory role-playing games ought to have introductory adventures.  By virtue of being one of the very first RPGs, Empire of the Petal Throne is an introductory role-playing game.  However, it does not have an introductory adventure; it has something arguably better.

I have previously discussed Professor Barker, his game, and his world – so there is no need to include that information in this post.  While the setting of Tékumel is too intricate for me to analyze it with any justice, I hope to gloss over what I consider to be some of the more interesting aspects of Barker's world in addition to exploring of the game's mechanics.  (Incidentally, the first edition rules are currently available electronically.)

Anyway, according to the section “Starting the Game,” all EotPT player characters are recently arrived foreigners in the Tsolyáni port city of Jakálla – “Princess of the River, Mistress of Cities.”  Specifically... is assumed that [they] arrive in a small boat...It is also assumed that everyone speaks understandable, though non-native, Tsolyáni and can read the modern form of this language.
No reasons are suggested for why the characters are in this circumstance; none are needed.  Having come “from their (presumed) barbarian homelands,” their lives up to this point are inconsequential.  Strangers are limited to the foreigners' quarter, a sort of ghetto for adventurers.  The rules expressly advise beginning characters “to remain within the foreigners' quarter until contacted for a mission by some nonplayer Tsolyáni character.”  Player characters who venture out of the quarter unescorted “run the risk of making errors in speaking Tsolyáni or in the intricate rules of Imperial etiquette” – risks that can result in circumstances “from derision and laughter to a quick trip to the impalement stake.”

Jakálla Foreigners' Quarter; Craig James Smith
          Upon reaching experience level III, a player character may travel freely within the Empire.  When he or she attains level VI, Imperial citizenship is granted...
In Skyrealms of Jorune, player characters also attempt to become citizens.  This serves as both the motive and focus of play in Jorune, while in EotPT 'citizenship' seems more like an automatic, ancillary effect of successfully partaking in adventures.  Regardless, the “foreigners' quarter” restriction allows the characters and the players to be introduced to the alien nature of Tékumel at a gradual pace.  Yet life in the foreigners' quarter is not comfortable:  “The food is abominable – stomach complaints and diarrhea are common.”  Thus, there is an incentive to leave the quarter behind.  This is accomplished by undertaking missions.
While still dwelling in the foreigners' quarter in Jakálla...[player characters] are often visited by Tsolyáni seeking their services.  This form of employment is advantageous since such Tsolyáni employers or patrons can offer help, money, further personnel, and even magical items.  By undertaking these missions...[player characters] also form social contacts within the Empire and begin to establish a place for themselves, a circle of Tsolyáni friends, etc...
Possible visitors to the foreigners' quarter include (but are not limited to) Evil Priest/Priestess, Good Priest/Priestess, Magic User, Nobleman/-woman, Nonhuman, and Scholar.  Possible missions include (but are not limited to)...
Help in a quarrel, join in political intrigue, assassinate visitor's enemy...Join in an expedition to the nearest Underworld...Become the visitor's champion in the Hirilákte arena...Visit visitor's home (purpose decided by referee)...
Although not specified in the rules, I think there would exist 'agents' that facilitate contact between prospective employers and appropriate candidates.  I can't imagine that important Tsolyáni citizens would spend a significant amount of time in the foreigners' quarter in hopes of coming across a suitable employee among the riff-raff.  An agent would coordinate interests efficiently and with discretion...for a reasonable price, of course.


  1. Barker displays great insight into the player's mindset by stratifying not just the strength of hostiles, type of equipment and magical abilities available to the players based on their experience(experience meaning both player and characer experience in this case), but also the social milieu. Other then arguably D&D Basic, i have yet to find a roleplaying game that explicitly treats not just encounters but the entire game world as one of enfolding complexity. As the players progress and get familiar with the basics of Tsolyani Society and the exotic strangeness of Tékumel, their game world literally expands. Awesome.

    Looking forward to reading more of your overviews of this fascinating and baroque game.

    -Prince of Nothing

  2. While the "barbarian boat people" is a great way to introduce players to Tekumel, there sadly is nothing to introduce the GM. I think this explains why few people actually run games in the setting.

  3. There are Hedgehobbt, but they are scattered and hard to find. I recommend the Swords and Glory game materials, (particularly the adventures in Tekumel solo style adventures, and, of course, the novels.. But the learning curve is steep.

  4. The exotic charm of the setting also acted/acts as a deterrent. Barker's first Tékumel novels were not published until the 80's; until then, for anyone not personally acquainted with Barker, the only 'window' into the setting was the game itself. It was obvious that Barker had developed a great amount of detail for Tékumel and (for practical reasons) only a small portion of that appeared in the game material. Barker knew that, to the outsider, Tékumel was “an alien mythos,” but he believed (perhaps incorrectly) that “a few readings” would engender sufficient familiarity for a prospective referee.

    When is a person comfortable being a game master using someone else's world? At some point, the would-be game master has to make the setting his own. Perhaps Tékumel had/has too much detail, too much structure for many would-be game masters to implement their own notions comfortably.